New waste management strategy needs to be about much more than managing “waste”

Author: Colm Warren. First Published: The Irish News, 13 September 2022.

The Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs plans to publish a new waste management strategy for Northern Ireland by 2023 is welcome, as thorough and practically deliverable policy-making around waste and resource management plays a vital role in the transition towards a more progressive, holistic way of thinking about economic development and climate solutions.

To be truly effective, waste and resource management must be cross-departmental as it impacts a range of policy initiatives – from the sustainability of our agri-food sector and protection of peatlands to how we best produce renewable energy and consider the decarbonisation of the gas network.

Such policies are fundamental to meeting the requirements of the Climate Bill and Green Growth Strategy meaning an effective waste management strategy must look beyond simply dealing with “waste”.

A properly developed strategy should place waste and resource management at the heart of the Department of Economy’s 10X Vision for Northern Ireland and should seek to showcase the region as a progressive, climate solutions focused region that is an attractive investment proposition for the development of transformational infrastructure projects and businesses that will, in turn, create new and locally sustainable employment for our young people.

Since the previous 2013 strategy was introduced, household recycling rates have been recorded at over 50 per cent and the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill has decreased by over 120,000 tonnes per annum. We’ve made progress. However, now feels like the time to “go again”.

We need to avoid past mistakes that have hindered investment in sustainable infrastructure and businesses. For one thing, we must avoid the artificial distortion of markets via the introduction of poorly thought through subsidy schemes and state support for the wrong types of technology and practice.

Whether in waste management, energy, agriculture, or the provision of finance, this curtails truly desirable and sustainable investment in the long-term and allows sub-optimal ‘solutions’ to hang around far longer than they should.

Let’s give oxygen to progressive projects and businesses that can work over the long-term to address identified structural problems. And “giving oxygen to” does not mean giving money – it can often be achieved simply by government ensuring a level playing field but then staying out of markets and letting viable technical solutions develop within the economic parameters they must learn to survive in anyway.

In markets awash with available capital for well put together projects, why should the taxpayer take on any risks that well-trained and highly sophisticated financial investors will not?

Furthermore, departments and business units striving in isolation to achieve policy objectives or targets in their own areas can inadvertently cause lots of damage elsewhere by not undertaking holistic due diligence on proposed projects or policy suggestions and not working from analysis that starts with what Northern Ireland needs as a whole.

It is encouraging to see increased levels of engagement between government departments and more thorough questions being asked of experienced industry. Hopefully such levels of collaboration will continue and be built upon.

DAERA has identified several priorities for the new strategy and it’s clear it acknowledges the need to move towards a more circular economy and the role resource management will play.

As the largest recycler of organics on the island, Natural World Products is a microcosmic template for what’s possible.

Providing over 50 per cent of household recycling in Northern Ireland by converting food and garden waste into peat free composts and organic soil conditioners utilised in horticulture and agriculture, we have a situation where an effective “waste” management solution is helping to address other structural problems.

These include carbon capture, the return of organic matter to heavily farmed soils, a reduction in the need for expensive synthetic and chemical fertilisers and the production of a high quality alternative to peat-based growing media with significant ex-NI export potential.

Positive engagement with local government and stakeholders in the education, energy, gas and utility sectors is also helping to further next level infrastructure and product development possibilities with the objective of high volume recycling operations that are fully self-sustaining from an energy perspective.

So effective “waste” management can facilitate world class solutions that can also help to address other strategic and bespoke problems we currently face – as opposed to creating new ones!

To borrow Erik Ten Hag’s reference to signing Casemiro from Real Madrid for Manchester United in an attempt to address structural problems that team has suffered for many years – it can “be the cement”.

Sitting in between and across key policy areas that are fundamental to Northern Ireland’s development, a progressive waste management strategy can be an effective lynch-pin in a bigger and more climate-focussed economic development machine.

Colm Warren is chief executive of Natural World Products

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